By Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks
SARA, DAVID, send your children to Jewish schools. They are the pride of our community. They are our best investment in the Jewish future. A generation ago, Jewish schools were often seen as second-best. They’re where you sent your children if they couldn’t get in elsewhere. Today, rightly, they are a first choice for many. That is a tribute to their excellence.
But they are more than that. For Jews, education is not just what we know. It’s who we are. No people ever cared for education more. Our ancestors were the first to make education a religious command, and the first to create a compulsory universal system of schooling – eighteen centuries before Britain. The rabbis valued study as higher even than prayer. Almost 2,000 years ago, Josephus wrote: “Should anyone of our nation be asked about our laws, he will repeat them as readily as his own name. The result of our thorough education in our laws from the very dawn of intelligence is that they are, as it were, engraved on our souls.”
The Egyptians built pyramids, the Greeks built temples, the Romans built amphitheatres. Jews built schools. They knew that to defend a country you need an army, but to defend a civilisation you need education. So Jews became the people whose heroes were teachers, whose citadels were schools, and whose passion was study and the life of the mind. How can we deprive our children of that heritage?
Can you really be educated without knowing Shakespeare or Mozart or Michelangelo or the basic principles of physics, economics or politics? Can you be an educated Jew without at least a basic familiarity with Tanakh and Talmud, the classic Torah commentaries, the poetry of Judah Halevi, the philosophy of Maimonides, and the history of the Jewish people? Jews in Eastern Europe used to say, “To be an apikores (heretic) is understandable, but to be an am ha’aretz (ignoramus) is unforgiveable”.
My children, I hope we taught you enough to know that the first duty of a Jewish parent is to ensure that their children have a Jewish education. For almost a century that whole value-system was in disarray because Jewish life was in disarray. Jews were in flight from persecution, first from Eastern Europe, then from Western Europe, then from Arab lands. They were preoccupied by rebuilding their lives and ensuring that their children were integrated into the wider society. Jewish education was a casualty of those times. But not now. Today we’ve begun to recover something of the tradition. Yet our standards are still far too low.
The world is changing ever faster. In a single generation, nowadays, there is more scientific and technological advance than in all previous centuries since human beings first set foot on earth. In uncharted territory, you need a compass. That’s what Judaism is. It guided our ancestors through good times and bad. It gave them identity, security, and a sense of direction. It enabled them to cope with circumstances more varied than any other people have ever known. It lifted them, often, to heights of greatness. Why? Because Judaism is about learning. Education counts for more in the long run than wealth or power or privilege. Those who know, grow.
“All you children shall be taught of the Lord” said Isaiah, “and great shall be the peace of your children”. Give your children a deep and wide Jewish education and you will be giving them the peace of knowing who they are and why.
There are only two other things more powerful still. First, practise at home what your children learn at school. Children need to see consistency. Otherwise they become confused, and eventually rebel.
Second, let your children be your teachers. Over the Shabbat table, let them share with you what they have learned at school during the week. You will be amazed at the pride you give them because you have allowed them to give something to you.
From “Letters to the Next Generation: Reflections for Yom Kippur” by Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks (Tishri 5770). Republished with permission of the author.